Pingyao and its People

DSC_0406

He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

DSC_0541

Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

DSC_0582

The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

DSC_0688

The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

DSC_0512

The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

DSC_0686

Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

DSC_0713

It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019

What a Paine: Trekking in Patagonia

DSC_0585

The shuttle bus came at first light. The passengers who boarded at the stops up the hill were layered up in outdoor gear. Some carried tents and stoves. They mumbled buen’ dia’s and hellos on their way to their seats. At the terminal on the outskirts, where I had arrived from Argentina two days before, the bigger buses were taking on passengers for the Torres del Paine National Park.

It was a two-and-a-half hour journey, familiar from the minibus tour I had taken on the first day to try to get a feel for the park: mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, icebergs, sun, wind and rain in succession, condors and guanacos, the lesser known of the South American camelids.

DSC_0640

My plan was to hike the first leg of the W Circuit, the iconic five-day trek through the park. The owner of my hostel, who also did a brisk trade in hiring out camping gear, assured me it would be a long day’s trek. It did not really look it on the map. The round trip to Mirador Torres del Paine and back was a little under 15 miles, and I often walked that sort of distance then and it might take me a morning but not a full day. There was a shorter hike I could tag on at the end if I had time to spare.

The peaks soared up in the distance, dusted with snow, obscured by cloud. A desultory stream trickled over rocks at the side of the track. There were scrubby grasslands and hardy trees. To the right was the refugio where the W-trekkers spend their first night. A gaucho galloped a bay horse towards it.

rsz_dsc_0687

It was warm, now, in the morning sun and I peeled off two layers and stuffed them into my rucksack. About half an hour in, the path turned towards the mountains, became sinuous and steepened. I snarled up behind a tour group then managed to pass. There were conifers bent at an angle from the wind and pretty red alpine flowers.

In the first hour, according to my stats, I climbed from 400ft above sea to over 1000. By two hours, I was at 1500, by three at 2,300. There was a clatter of hooves behind me. I pressed myself to the side of the track as more gauchos passed with supplies for the refugios along the trail. I looked back at a lake far below and the snowy mountains beyond it.

DSC_0691

The trail cut diagonally along one side of a valley. The opposing peaks appeared coal black, except where they were streaked with snow. The snow lay thickly on more distant mountains and the winds swirled it round their peaks. The river bubbled over rocks at the foot of the valley.  The Patagonian wind howled all at once. The temperature plummeted. I wrestled first a softshell then a puffa jacket from my rucksack and they flapped like a sail ripped from the mast in a storm.

Up and over the ridge and the wind disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived and I pulled down zips, pushed up sleeves and tore off layers again. The trail led into the forest and I walked under coniferous trees. I crossed and re-crossed and walked along the river. The water was turquoise and clear and frothed as it eddied round rocks. The boulders beside it were bleached by the sun. The bridges were wooden and rickety. One crossing was just a broken ladder and a few planks of wood slung into the shallows.  I tramped through the grounds of a refugio with tents wherever there was space and travellers lounging on the benches outside the dorms.

15078751_1837481676495557_5178498991990586088_n

It was somewhere around lunchtime when I reached the Torres camp site and I stopped to eat the empanadas de pino from the supermarket in Puerto Natales. What I took to be a wolf emerged from the trees and trotted passed me and I jumped up in alarm and knocked over the bottle I had placed on the floor. The water dribbled over the dust as the animal loped through the campsite. No one else seemed to mind it and I think it was actually a grey fox, not a wolf. I picked up the bottle and salvaged what I could of the water and my pride.

The trail became markedly steeper from there and progress was slow as hikers in front picked their way over rocks, between boulders, relying increasingly on walking poles. There were repeated bottlenecks. Until then, my average pace had fluctuated between about 20 and 30 minutes a mile but now fell to almost 60. The frustration, though, fell away, at a little under 3000 ft above sea as I stood at the edge of the turquoise lake staring up at the three great shards of granite for which the park is named. Las Torres del Paine, ‘the Blue Towers’ in a mixture of Spanish and Tehuelche, the extinct native language of that part of Chilean Patagonia.

DSC_0666

It had taken four hours in all to reach the top and it would take another three and a half to get back to the refugio where I had seen the gaucho that morning. I had been naïve to imagine that I might have time to fit in more hiking that day. All that remained was to recline in the sun with a book and wait for the shuttle to Laguna Amarga, then pick up the bus back to Puerto Natales.

© Richard Senior 2019

Eating in Hiroshima

11136663_1617121098531617_8514126289995763457_n

It was lunchtime and the okonomiyaki shop was bustling but I got a seat at the counter. Everyone wants to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki, literally ‘what you want, grilled,’ originated in Osaka and is sold all over Japan nowadays; but Hiroshima has a version of its own, known to some as hiroshimayaki.

The chef smeared a circle of batter on the plancha grill in front of me, sprinkled on katsuobushi (flakes of dried tuna), then added several handfuls of chiffonaded* cabbage. To that, he added bean sprouts, sliced squid and a couple of thin slices of belly pork, followed by another drizzle of batter.

11128853_1617121128531614_7212834932965688446_n

He arranged yakisoba noodles on the plancha into the size and shape of the hiroshimayaki, then deftly flipped it onto them with a pair of spatulas. The towering pile of cabbage cooked down to something more manageable and he pressed it down some more with his spatula.

He cracked an egg onto the plancha, smeared it into a circle as he had the batter then flipped the hiroshimayaki again onto the cooking egg.  He flipped it a third time when the egg was cooked, drizzled mayonnaise and an unctuous, Worcestershire-sauce-based dressing over the top, buried it in sliced spring onions and sat an egg yolk on the top.

11159513_1617178385192555_6503520122090998926_n

It was very good, if very bad for me. I was thankful that I had mostly eaten fish, rice and lightly-cooked vegetables the rest of the time I had been in Japan. I paid, waddled out and caught the tram, where an old lady stood with a big cardboard box roped to her back and walloped the same three people with it every time she turned round to look out the window, but they were too polite to say anything.

Somewhere around 70% of Japanese oysters are produced in Hiroshima and they appear on menus all over the city. I had them twice in one day, five for lunch deep-fried in panko crumbs and served with a miso soup, a bowl of rice and a delicate salad made with sliced cucumber and leaves, then another five in the evening braised in a broth with udon noodles and sliced spring onions.

11138610_1617178421859218_3909809064869909836_n

I never got to try Hiroshima-style tsukemen, made with cold ramen noodles and served with a dipping sauce made with soy, red chillies and sesame seeds, but I had the same sauce with gyoza dumplings.

I ate in a traditional restaurant, where each diner, or group, had a room of their own and a sliding door portioned them off from the other diners. There was a low table and cushions to kneel on and a button to press when you were ready to order, which presumably sounded a buzzer at the bar and, at any rate, had the waitress knocking on the sliding door within seconds.

10428685_1617684971808563_7941640182693333351_n

I ate well in Hiroshima, but then I ate well all over Japan and only had one disappointing meal – in an izakaya in suburban Osaka – in the month I was there.

© Richard Senior 2016

*thinly sliced

Through the Inca Heartlands of Peru

DSC_0424

The minibus struggled up into the mountains overlooking Cuzco.

We passed the ruins of the Incan fortress of Sacsaywaman, whose stones the conquistadors looted to build the colonial town below, crashed over epic potholes and burst out into beautiful countryside. Horses, sheep and llamas grazed at the side of the road, tended by Quechua ladies in felt hats and voluminous skirts.

DSC_0349 edit

A few switchback bends down the mountain road, we stopped to gaze over the Urubamba Valley, popularly known as El Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, once the heartland of the Incan Empire. I said no gracias a few dozen times to the hawkers who held up alpaca jumpers and chullo hats, and water and sun cream, and CD’s of Andean music.

We stopped again at one of the weaving villages dotted about the mountains, and an embarrassed young woman demonstrated how to clean and dye alpaca wool, and older ladies worked a handloom. Their llamas and alpacas let me stroke their ears, but one of them spat when I tried to take its photo.

DSC_0366

Then on to Pisac, to climb Incan terraces which step up the mountain to the ruined fortress at the peak. The Incas dominated the western half of South America before the Spanish arrived, expanding from the Sacred Valley across Peru and into present-day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. They built complex structures which have withstood centuries of earthquakes and impress engineers to this day. Yet they never devised a system of notation; they invented the wheel but could see no use for it except in toys; and they were still sacrificing children around the time of the European Renaissance.

Back on the bus, driving through little towns laid out along dirt roads with single-storey adobe buildings, whitewashed and painted by hand with the name of a proprietor, the nature of his business and perhaps a familiar logo, like Coca Cola or Repsol Oil.

DSC_0363

I was intrigued by the names carefully signwritten across the walls of houses: the same ones on house after house, “Humberto” or “Miguel Morales” in huge red letters, shaded in blue. It turned out that they were local politicians.

I climbed more Incan terraces at Ollantaytambo, where the Incas fought the conquistadors and won. The terrraces are impressively straight, impressively uniform, and the enormous blocks are shaped and slotted together so snugly, without mortar, that you would not slide a feeler gauge between them. The Incas did all sorts of ingenious things to get the blocks to the site, including diverting a river. But they would have made things a great deal easier for themselves if they had seen the potential of the wheel.

DSC_0471

There is an ethereal air about the town below with its adobe walls and trapezoid doorways, despite the trucks which bully their way with blasts of their horns along lanes meant for carts. The Andean people have lived there continuously since before the Incas came, let alone the conquistadors.

In the morning, I took the train to take the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

© Richard Senior 2016

Dinner in Vientiane

Lao_laab

It was around 9pm and, at that time in London, the restaurants are bustling, and in Madrid they are just starting to open. But in Vientiane they were already closing.

The lights were off in the first two I passed and, in the third, the waiters were stacking chairs on tables. There were still a few customers in the fourth, and I went in but was told that the kitchen was closed. After a couple of blocks, I started to wonder if I might have to go hungry that night.

But all over Southeast Asia – even, it turned out, in Vientiane – there are pop-up restaurants on patches of waste ground with grubby old picnic tables and grills made from half an oil drum. They have the look of a roadside cafe aimed at truckers and people with hangovers, but the worse they look, the better the food tends to be. It was very good at this one.

I had laap – the national dish – made with finely-chopped Mekong River fish ‘cooked’ with lime juice, as in ceviche, and tossed with sliced chilli, lemongrass, cucumber and an abundance of herbs: coriander, mint and Thai basil. It came with a bowl of sticky rice, as almost everything does in Laos.

I sat out until late in the warm night air with a couple of Beerlaos until a storm passed through and sent everyone scurrying under canopies.

The next night’s restaurant came recommended. Some reckoned it was the best in Vientiane, one of the best in Laos. It was French, but neither a relic of empire, nor made to look like it might be with a menu of cumbersome heritage dishes in a room a little too French to be real.

Tinay Inthavong learned his cheffing in France, at the Lycée Hotelier in Nice and the two-Michelin-starred Michel Sarran in Toulouse. His restaurant, L’Adresse de Tinay, would have worked well enough in either city, but instead he opened in Vientiane, reportedly after visiting on his honeymoon and deciding to settle there.

It is a bistro moderne, stylish without being snobbish, minimalist without looking corporate: white walls, big mirrors, designer chairs and a glass-fronted wine store. Front of house staff are friendly and efficient; there is no embarrassing fawning and they don’t give a damn what you wear.  The menu is a reassuringly short list of Modern French dishes cooked and presented as well as you would expect from a chef with Tinay’s CV.

An amuse bouche came with the aperitif: a tiny bowl of gazpacho with baguette croutons. Starter was a tuna tartare, main was « cassoulet ». As the quote marks implied, it was not the Languedoc classic but something much lighter and cheffier, complete with a fashionable foam, made with the same key ingredients: confit duck, a Toulouse sausage and white beans.

Much as I enjoyed discovering the local food of the region, the noodle soups, the chilli-spiked salads, the fish cooked in banana leaves, it was good to have a change, for one night, from street food carts and ramshackle restaurants, and while dinner at L’Adresse cost a lot more, it was still a bargain by European benchmarks.

© Richard Senior 2016

Laap image: By Basil Strahm [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tanning in the Sun in Fez

DSC_0344

The tanners who work in the dye pits at the heart of the Fez Medina spend their days waist-deep in cow piss and pigeon shit.

It is even worse than commuting on the Thameslink.

CT3RNd-UYAA-RJv

Balak! Balak!” the old man shouted in warning and the people pressed themselves to the sides of the derb* and the donkey train clattered through, piled high with animal hides, on its way to the tanneries.

The Medina dates back to the eighth century and the greater part of what is there now was built around the time of Chaucer, Petrarch and the Black Death, two hundred years before Shakespeare, four hundred before the Declaration of Independence.

rsz_ct20f_cveaebp0d

The old walls encircle an area of three square kilometres, a medieval tangle of going on ten thousand alleys and lanes – free of all vehicles, unless you count donkeys – winding, intersecting, curling uphill, sloping down, lurching round dog-leg corners, through keyhole-shaped archways, opening out into squares with fountains decorated with zillij tiles and bustling, clamorous souks, and closing in on claustrophobic passages with crumbling walls and battered doors and petering out into silent cul-de-sacs.

More donkeys clopped over the cobbles, laden with gas bottles and bags of cement. Men in woollen djebellas rested in doorways; women in bright hijabs picked through the vegetables at the grocer’s stall. A sheep’s head was on display at the butcher’s.

CT20v-DWsAA60Ch

A man worked leather in a tiny workshop; others tink-tinked with hammers and chisels on blocks of stones, and pounded copper with mallets; handlooms ker-chunked in the carpet shops; a baker fed discs of khobz bread into an oven, another carried a tray of them on his head through the derbs. The muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

Outside the walls, in the unseen ville nouvelle, there are as many smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, ATM’s, supermarkets, takeaway franchises and chain hotels as there are in any modern city; but the Medina has barely changed since the Middle Ages.

DSC_0291

The tanneries, hidden behind the facades of the leather souk, seem centuries away from the Industrial Revolution, let alone the Digital Age. The tanners who work them are organised into a craft guild, as tanners across Europe once were, in feudal times. Fathers bequeath their jobs to their sons; some families claim to have been in the dye pits for thirty-odd generations.

They work in a tightly-packed honeycomb of vats built of stone and lined with tiles. The grottiest are filled with water, quicklime and cow urine and are so foul that the tanners – who mostly work in shorts and bare feet – wear rubber boots and waterproofs around them. The hides are soaked for two or three days to soften the hair and flesh, then hauled out, scraped and stretched over balconies to dry in the sun.

DSC_0326

Once dry, they are dunked in vats of diluted pigeon poo, which is collected by young boys with one of the world’s less enviable jobs. Their fathers are tanners and they hope, when they grow up, to be tanners themselves, promoted from scraping the pigeon shit off rooftops to standing up to their waists in it, treading the hides for hours at a time until they are softened enough to be dyed.

The hides are then submerged in coloured dyes, which are claimed – some have doubted it – to be entirely organic, using mint for green, indigo for blue, poppies for red, cedar bark for brown, henna for orange and turmeric for yellow (the Fassi insist it is saffron but the economics of that make no sense). A tanner, once again, climbs into the vat.

DSC_0329

The finished leather is sold to artisans who work it into jackets, handbags, pouffes and babouche slippers; and they, in turn, are sold by fast-talking salesmen to tourists who have spent the rest of their money on Berber carpets, Fez blue ceramics and bags of spices.

There is talk now of moving the tanneries out of the Medina and creating a botanic garden in their place. With luck, though, it will get no further than talk.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Narrow alley

Cuddling Koalas

DSC_0173

It was much like any other hospital. There was an ambulance parked in readiness outside the intensive care unit. There were staff milling about in scrubs. There was an X-ray department and a neonatal ward. The only oddity was that the patients were all koalas.

I met a few of them. Barry had scoliosis and they were hand-feeding him with a syringe. Kaylee had lost a hind leg and an eye. Others, whose names I missed, looked as if they had been sitting in a muddy puddle, which apparently means they have chlamydia.’Wet bottom,’ they call it in koalas.

DSC_0119

The koalas, poor things, just want to climb high up a gum tree and curl up in a ball in the crook of a branch and chew leaves.  But their habitat is disappearing, because humans keep tearing it down to build houses, and if they are not burned in bush fires, they are mauled by dogs or knocked down by cars; or they get wet bottom or KIDS, which is the koala version of AIDS.

The Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie has been run by volunteers since 1973. They take in around two hundred sick and injured koalas every year and look to release them back into the wild if they can. They give free tours to visitors in the afternoons.

IMG_20130312_091328

I had first seen koalas close up at the Featherdale Wildlife Park in the Suburbs of Sydney, where I had been a few days before. Red kangaroos were hopping free and were so used to humans you could bend down to stroke them; wombats too. Both had fur as soft as a rabbit’s. But it was the koala which melted my heart.

The keeper carried it out, holding it as you would hold a cat, with a hand under its bum and another loosely on its back while it rested its front paws on her shoulder. I stroked it briefly and got a very unflattering photograph next to it, but I wanted to hold one like the keeper.

DSC_0375

I got the chance a few weeks later at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary a bus ride away from Brisbane. They had a platypus there, as well, and I tried not to laugh at it but it seems to have  been built from nature’s parts bin: a mammal with the bill of a duck, the body of an otter, the tail of a beaver, the fur of a mole and webbed feet, which finds its prey through electroreception like a shark, defends itself with venom like a snake and lays eggs like a bird.

Victoria the koala didn’t like the lady in front of me and turned away from her; no reassurance from the keeper would persuade her. She seemed comfortable enough with me, though. I made a cradle of my hands for her to sit on and tickled her fur with a thumb while she steadied herself with her paws on my chest. I didn’t want to hand her back.

© Richard Senior 2016

The Gardens of Kanazawa

DSC_0953

Japanese gardens are landscapes in miniature.

Rocks symbolise mountains, streams represent rivers and ponds stand in for seas; water cascades from one pond to another in allusion to mountain waterfalls. Every stone is carefully chosen for colour, shape and size, and placed with precision in clusters.

DSC_0980

Just as much thought goes into to the placement of suteishi (‘discarded’) stones, which are meant to seem random and express spontaneity, for even the spontaneous is meticulously planned in Japan.

On the backstreets of Kanazawa, there are old Samurai houses with gardens no bigger than you would find behind a modest house in the English suburbs. Yet, without seeming cramped, they incorporate streams filled with koi carp, lanterns, pagodas, mini-boulders, arched bridges, cedars and firs.

IMG_2593

They are not gardens in which you could kick a football about or set up a barbecue and have friends round for burgers and beers on a hot summer’s evening, but the idea would assuredly horrify in Japan, in any case. They are gardens to gaze at, gardens to cheer the soul.

Kenroku-en is just a few blocks away but on a wholly different scale. It is a public garden – once part of the grounds of Kanazawa Castle – which undulates over 114,000 Sq m and is reckoned one of the three most beautiful in Japan. The name means something on the lines of Garden with Six Attributes, a reference to an ancient book which posited that the ideal garden would have the six attributes of “spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas”.

DSC_0938

At the highest point, there is a view through the cherry blossom across the city and the hills to the mountains; fish eagles soar overhead. Nearby is the pond known as Kasumiga-ike, which stretches over 5,800 Sq m. An old wooden tea house sits over the pond on  pillars.

The path spirals down the hill, named Sazae-yama – or Turban Shell Hill – after the pattern on the shell of a type of sea snail which is a popular local delicacy. The ground either side is carpeted in moss and dotted with fallen blossom.

DSC_0966

It leads down to another pond, Hisago-ike, fed by a six-metre-high cascade from Kasumiga-ike which tumbles down through the trees and rocks with a soothing hiss. Mallards glide across the surface, smearing the reflection of the deep green fir trees and soft pink cherry blossoms. Herons take to the air with a little jump from a rock. Koi carp teem at the edges. Bees buzz the blossom.

The path meanders through the gardens, ushering you into secret spaces, opening out into vistas (spaciousness & seclusion), past fir trees with their roots exposed, and wooden props under the branches of the oldest and biggest to stop them breaking in heavy snow, and cherry and plum blossoms and Japanese maples and stone lanterns and pagodas thickly coated with moss, which is welcomed for the impression it gives of great age (artifice & antiquity) over humped-back bridges across streams lined with iris and azaleas, offering glimpses again of the mountains (water-courses & panoramas).

DSC_0982

Every rock, every tree, every lantern seems so perfectly positioned that to move any one would ruin the harmony of the whole garden. It is a profoundly peaceful place: a place where anxieties melt away and you feel a rare lightness of spirit.

© Richard Senior 2016

Pop-Up Tango in Buenos Aires

DSC_0491 edit 

It was late in the afternoon on a sultry day and there were a handful of people at the tables in Plaza Dorrego. A few craft stalls at the margin gave the palest hint of the bustle of the famous Feria de San Telmo on Sunday afternoons. Bored teenagers sat on the wall, glaring and smoking.

The couple appeared from nowhere, both with Hollywood faces, he in a fedora and waistcoat, she in a thigh-split dress and strappy heels. Someone switched on the music and they took to the floor in the middle of the open-air café.

Think of Buenos Aires and you inevitably think of tango. You might also think of fruity Malbecs and thick-cut steaks, choripanes and empanadas, the harlequin houses of La Boca, Eva Perón and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. But, first, you think of tango.

DSC_0498 edit

It is a sexy, stylish dance with carefully choreographed high kicks, lifts and drops, and a close contact which scandalised conservatives for generations. They were uneasy about women being so intimate with their husbands, let alone strangers. When the far right seized power, they banned it and sent it underground until the early 1980’s.

In the nineteenth century, the Argentine government advertised across Europe for labour, and the ambitious and the adventurous came in number to seek fortunes which few of them actually made. The theory goes that they brought the fashionable dances of their old countries with them and that they morphed into one to become what we now know as tango.

But quite why, how and when, nobody really knows, because – as Christine Denniston put it in her insightful history – it “was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars”.

DSC_0495

It is a popular cliché that tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires where – with an abundance of men and a shortage of women – queues would form and the girls would dance with the men as they waited. But, as Denniston noted, if the women were free to dance, they were free to do what the men had gone there for. She might well be right, though, that it was at brothels that the middle classes discovered tango and that it is when it started to get written about.

It spread from the courtyards of the poor to the drawing rooms of the rich and from Buenos Aires to the rest of Argentina and, by the early twentieth century, to Paris, Berlin. London and New York.

It is big business now. There are elaborate stage shows for the tourist market at US$100 a ticket and stores-full of tango memorabilia from antique posters to tacky figurines. For locals and the more adventurous tourists, there are milongas, where everyone is expected to take part. The more traditional have a sad, end-of-the-pier quality and are filled with couples in late middle-age trying to re-enact their youth; modern milongas have DJs instead of bands and attract Millennials.

But you don’t really need to go looking for tango. Spend any time around San Telmo or La Boca, and you are likely to see couples dancing for pesos or just for the hell of it. There is no schedule; it is not advertised: you just have to be there at the right time. It seems entirely spontaneous, and it is closer in spirit to tango’s origins than any top dollar stage show.

© Richard Senior 2016

 

The Fall of Saigon, Revisited

DSC_0700

“Twenty years ago,” reckoned the far-left polemicist John Pilger in 1995, “Hanoi was a Trappist monk and Saigon was a whore with a hangover”.

Saigon, on 29 April 1975, was – as Pilger sketched it – a city of bar girls, street hustlers, opium-addicts, gamblers and black marketeers, but it was also a city of high-rise buildings, Western fashions and a comfortable middle class. Next day, it would fall.

The images of that day – forty-one years ago tomorrow – are among the most iconic of the late twentieth century: the overloaded helicopters struggling from the roof of the US Embassy, the desperate crowds outside, the tank busting through the fence of Independence Palace.

DSC_0755

The old embassy building, at 4 Lê Duẩn Boulevard, up past the colonial-era Notre Dame Cathedral and round the corner, was demolished in the late 1990s, after the Clinton administration restored diplomatic relations and the site was given back to the United States. The planters which used to surround it are still there.

After the years, the months, the weeks of anticipation, and the days of frantic withdrawal, the fall, when it came, was an anti-climax. No shots were fired, no resistance was offered. The demoralised soldiers of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, stripped off their equipment and went home. Rows of helmets and boots lay along the side of the road.

The cameras were not even rolling when the tank burst through the fence around Independence Palace. It had to reverse out and do it again so the photographers could capture it for posterity.

DSC_0754

Independence Palace was a disingenuous name. South Vietnam only came into being as an attempt by the French to regain control of a colony over which Ho Chi Minh had asserted independence. The original palace was what had once been the colonial governor’s residence, but that was bombed in 1962 by dissident pilots in the South Vietnamese air force, sympathetic to Hanoi, who ironically destroyed its left wing.

President Diệm, who had come to power in a free and fair election in which he secured 150,000 more votes than people entitled to cast them (despite advice to keep the result around 60%), commissioned a new building, but was assassinated before it was finished in one of the coups which punctuated South Vietnam’s short history.

From the outside, it could be a municipal swimming pool in a little-known provincial town; on the inside, it might be the headquarters of SPECTRE in one of the early Bond movies. It is open to the public and preserved much as it was on that morning in April 1975 when tanks bust down the fence. All that has really changed is the name. It is Reunification Palace now. That day, forty-one years ago tomorrow, is known here as Reunification Day. They refer to it as the Liberation, not the Fall. Since then, the city has officially been Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, but it is still, informally, Sài Gòn.

DSC_0776

The Fall did not lead to mass-executions, as the Saigonese had feared, although many were forcibly relocated to the countryside. ARVN soldiers and others associated with the old regime, over a million according to some accounts, were sent to re-education camps where most were ill-treated – some abominably – and over a hundred thousand died.

The old men you see peddling cyclos – tricycle rickshaws – around modern Saigon are likely as not to be ARVN veterans. I asked one and he confirmed it, but he did not want to talk about the war or re-education camps: he just wanted to talk about ‘girly bars’.

Vietnam is still nominally communist, but it is a long way from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Saigon is the economic capital and still feels dramatically different from Hanoi. There are familiar names on the plaques outside the most impressive office blocks, names like Citibank, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, Allen & Overy, Mayer Brown, CBRE, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. There are Porsches and Ferraris parked nearby. There are men in sharp-tailored Armani and women in sharp-heeled Louboutins, and sharper than both is the contrast between the rich and the rest: sharper than I saw anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

It is hard now to think of Saigon as having fallen, or if you prefer, being liberated.

© Richard Senior 2016